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Enthusiastic power users still a danger?

How much freedom is too much?

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

Reg reader workshop Some would argue that it all started with Lotus 123 back in the 80s. When the early spreadsheets emerged and users seized on them as a way of solving their own information requirements, IT's control of the organisation's data started to gradually slip away. We could put all of the security and integrity checks we liked into central systems, but it all counted for nought as soon as the user exported a snapshot of the data and starting manipulating it and distributing it offline.

As we got into the 90s, chaos really started to set in. The desktop PC became truly ubiquitous, driven by both Microsoft Office and the first generation of Client Server technology. Then someone invented ODBC, allowing pretty much anything to hook into the databases that underpinned operational systems. Soon there was an explosion in the number of desktop query, reporting and "productivity" tools that allowed users to get straight to relational data.

And the more users gained access to the corporate crown jewels, the more demanding they became. The IT department found itself constantly nagged by users wanting to know where to look for information, how to combine things from different sources to get the result they wanted, and how to fix things when it didn't quite work out the way they intended.

Of course, some of the enthusiasts didn't ask, they just took weeks of time out from doing their day job to set up elaborate data extraction, merging, and manipulation mechanisms using their armoury of query tools, spreadsheets, and desktop databases to create their own little view of the world.

Then the real fun came when they proudly took the results of their toils to the next management meeting and discovered that an equally enthusiastic and enterprising colleague had been through a similar DIY exercise and come up with a different set of numbers that didn't match. Whole meetings then became hijacked by trying to work out how people had arrived at their set of numbers and which particular version of the truth was actually correct, rather than dealing with the real business at hand.

But that was the 80s and 90s - history that is long behind us. Clearly since that time query and reporting technology has advanced considerably, systems are a lot better integrated than they were, data warehouses are in place to serve up information conveniently and coherently to users, and experience has been gained on how to avoid the kinds of issue we have been discussing. We would imagine, therefore, that organisations generally have their act together much more effectively today.

So is this true?

Well, you tell us. Is there a different breed of power user out there now that can quickly, efficiently, and safely generate the information they need, or is it still a case of enthusiastic amateurs wasting huge amounts of time producing dubious output when they should be getting on with their "real" job? Either way, how much of a hassle is it for IT departments supporting enthusiasts and power users, and what are the most common issues you are dealing with?

We'd love to hear your stories and opinions in our discussion below.

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